Monday, July 9, 2007
“You’re trying to tell me Markús is just tidying the basement? You can’t possibly believe that a pile of rubbish is the reason that he didn’t want anyone to go down there before him?”
The lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir smiled politely at the man addressing her, an archaeologist called Hjörtur Fridriksson, but did not answer his question. This was getting out of hand. She was very uncomfortable; the smell of smoke and the ash hanging in the air were irritating her eyes and nose, and she was scared that the roof was going to collapse at any moment. On their way through the house to the basement door the three of them had had to make their way around a huge pile of ashy debris where the roof had collapsed onto the intricately patterned carpet, at which point Thóra had adjusted her helmet’s elastic chin-strap to ensure that it was fastened tightly. She shuffled her feet and looked embarrassedly at the clock. They heard a dull thud from the basement. What exactly was the man up to? Markús had said that he needed a little time, but neither she nor the archaeologist could guess what his definition of “a little” was. “I’m sure he’ll reappear soon,” she said, without much conviction, and stared at the crooked door in the hope that it would be pushed open and this business concluded. She glanced instinctively at the ceiling, ready to jump away if it appeared likely to crash down on them.
“Don’t worry,” said Hjörtur, pointing upward. “If the roof was going to split apart it would have done so a long time ago.” He heaved a sigh and stroked his unshaven chin. “Do you know what he’s doing down there?”
Thóra shook her head, unwilling to discuss her client’s plans with someone unconnected to the case.
“He must have at least hinted,” said Hjörtur. “We’ve been dying to find out about this.” He looked at Thóra. “I’ll bet this has something to do with pornography. The others think so, too.”
She shrugged. That thought had certainly occurred to her as well, but she did not have a sufficiently fertile imagination to guess what kind of thing would be too embarrassing or disgusting to show to a stranger. A film of the homeowner’s sexual adventures? Unlikely. Few people had video cameras in the 1970s, and she doubted that the type of film used back then would have survived the destruction that had rained down on the Islands. Besides, Markús Magnússon, who was down in the basement, had been only fifteen when the house had disappeared beneath lava and ash, so he probably hadn’t been ready for much in that area. Nevertheless, there was something down in the basement that he’d been desperate to get to before them. Thóra sighed. How did she keep ending up with these characters? She didn’t know any other lawyer who attracted such strange cases, and such peculiar clients. She resolved to ask Markús what had inspired him to call her little legal firm instead of one of the larger ones when he decided to demand that the excavation be legally blocked. If he ever returned from the basement. She pulled the neck of her jumper up over her mouth and nose and tried breathing through it. That was a little better. Hjörtur smiled at her.
“You get used to it, I promise,” he said. “Hopefully you won’t have to, though—it takes several days.”
Thóra rolled her eyes. “Damn it, it’s not like he’s going to move in down there,” she muttered through her jumper. Then she pulled it down to smile at Hjörtur. It was thanks to him that things had gone so well until now, in that they’d been able to get by without demanding the injunction. In any case, that would only have been a temporary measure since Markús and his family no longer had any claim on the house. The Westmann Islands owned it along with all its contents, and there was little point in fighting this fact even though Markús had made a concerted attempt to do so. He had focused particularly on Hjörtur Fridriksson, the man now standing next to Thóra; Hjörtur was the director of a project entitled Pompeii of the North, whose task it was to excavate a number of houses that had been buried by ash in the eruption on Heimaey Island in 1973. Thóra had had considerable contact with him by telephone and email since the case had begun, and liked the man well enough. He was inclined to be long-winded, but seemed reasonable and was not easily provoked. Hjörtur had been seriously tested, since Markús so often acted like a total ass. He had refused to give even the slightest clue as to why he was opposed to his parents’ house being excavated, had gone on and on about invasions of privacy, and had generally complicated the matter for Thóra in every conceivable way. After trying to reach an agreement but getting nowhere due to Markús’s pigheadedness, in defeat she had asked Hjörtur whether he couldn’t just dig up some other house instead. There were certainly enough to choose from. But that was out of the question, since Markús’s childhood home was one of the few houses in the area built of concrete, and thus was more likely than the others to have withstood the cataclysm in any significant way. The purpose of the excavation was not to dig down to a house that was now simply rubble.
Thóra had already started reading up on how she might best obtain an injunction against the excavation when it transpired that Markús was only concerned about the basement of the house. Finally they could discuss solutions sensibly, and Hjörtur had proposed this arrangement: the house would first be dug up and aired out, and then Markús would be the first person allowed down into the basement, where he could remove anything that he wanted. After some consideration he agreed to this compromise and Thóra breathed easier. Markús had no trouble at all bearing the cost of endless litigation, since he was anything but badly off financially. His family owned one of the largest fishing companies in the Westmann Islands, and even though Thóra would never complain about being paid well for her work, she was upset about working against her better judgment, and toward a goal that would never be reached. She was immensely relieved when Markús agreed to Hjörtur’s proposal; now she could start putting the final touches to the fine details of the agreement over how Markús’s visit to the basement would be conducted, how they could guarantee that others would not be allowed to sneak in before him, and so on. The agreement was then signed, and they only had to wait for the end of the excavation.
So there they stood, archaeologist and lawyer, staring at a crooked basement door while a man who had still been a teenager in 1973 wrestled with a terrible secret beneath their feet.
“Hallelujah,” said Thóra when they heard footsteps on the basement stairs.
“I do hope he found whatever he was looking for,” said Hjörtur gloomily. “We didn’t think about the possibility of him coming up empty-handed.”
Thóra crossed her fingers and stared at the door.
They watched anxiously as the doorknob turned, then incredulously as the door was cracked open only a tiny bit. They exchanged a glance, then Thóra leaned forward and spoke into the gap. “Markús,” she said calmly, “is something wrong?”
“You’ve got to come down here,” came the reply. His voice sounded peculiar, but it was impossible to tell whether he was excited, disappointed or sad. The glow from his flashlight shone through the chink and illuminated Thóra’s feet.
“Me?” Thóra asked, flabbergasted. “Down there?” She looked back at Hjörtur, who raised his eyebrows.
“Yes,” said Markús, in the same enigmatic tone. “I need to get your opinion on something.”
“My opinion?” she echoed. When she found herself speechless she had a habit of repeating whatever was said to her, giving herself time to ponder her response.
“Yes, your legal opinion,” said the voice behind the door.
Thóra straightened up. “I’ll give you all the opinions you want, Markús,” she said. “However, this is how it is with us lawyers: we have no need to experience for ourselves whatever it is we’re dealing with. So there’s no reason for me to clamber down there with you. Tell me what this is about and I’ll put together an opinion for you back at my office in Reykjavík.”
“You’ve got to come down here,” said Markús. “I don’t need a written opinion. A verbal one’ll do.” He paused. “I’m begging you. Just come down here.” Thóra had never heard Markús sound so humble. She’d only heard him being haughty and opinionated.
Hjörtur scowled at Thóra, unamused. “Why don’t you just get it over with? It’s completely safe, and I’m keen to finish up here.”
She hesitated. What in the blazes could be down there? She absolutely did not want to go down into even darker and fouler air. On the other hand, she agreed with Hjörtur that they had to settle this here and now. She roused herself. “All right then,” she conceded, grabbing Hjörtur’s flashlight. “I’m coming.” She opened the door wide enough to step through and saw Markús on the stairs, looking pale as a corpse. His face nearly matched the white helmet that he wore on his head. Thóra tried not to read too much into it, since the only light was coming from their flashlights, giving everything an otherworldly glow. She gulped. The air there was even more stagnant, dustier. “What do you want to show me?” she asked. “Let’s get this over with.”
Markús set off down the stairs into the darkness. The beam from his flashlight was of little use amid the dust and ash and there was no way to see where the steps ended. “I don’t know how to describe it,” said Markús in a strangely calm voice, as he went down the stairs. “You’ve got to believe me when I say that this is not what I came here looking for. But it’s clear now that you have to get an injunction against the excavation and have the house covered over again.”
Thóra pointed her light at her feet. She had no wish to trip on the stairs and tumble into the basement head first. “Is there something bad here that you weren’t aware of?”
“Yes, you could say that,” he replied. “I would never have allowed the excavation to go ahead if this was what I wanted to hide. That’s for certain.” He was standing now on the basement floor. “I think I’ve got myself into a really bad position.”
Thóra stepped off the final stair and took her place by his side. “What do you mean by ‘this’?” she asked, shining her light around. The little that she could discern appeared completely innocent: an old sled, a badly dented birdcage, numerous boxes and miscellaneous rubbish scattered here and there, all of it covered with dust and soot.
“Over here,” said Markús. He led her to the edge of a partition. “You have to believe me—I knew nothing about this.” He pointed his flashlight downward.
Thóra peered at the floor, but couldn’t see anything that could have frightened Markús that much, only three mounds of dust. She moved her flashlight over them. It took her some time to realize what she was seeing—and then it was all she could do not to let the flashlight slip from her hand. “Good God,” she said. She ran the light over the three faces, one after another. Sunken cheeks, empty eye sockets, gaping mouths; they reminded her of the photographs of mummies she’d once seen in National Geographic. “Who are these people?”
“I don’t know,” said Markús, clearly in shock himself. “But that doesn’t matter. What’s certain is that they’ve been dead for quite some time.” He raised one of his hands to cover his nose and mouth, even though there was no smell from the corpses, then grimaced and looked away.
Thóra, on the other hand, could not tear her eyes away from the remains. Markús hadn’t been exaggerating when he said that this looked bad for him. “What did you want to hide, then, if it wasn’t this?” she asked in astonishment. “You’d better have an answer when this gets out.” He appeared on the verge of protesting, and she hurriedly added: “You can forget about the house being buried again as if nothing ever happened. I can promise you that that’s not an option.” Why was nothing ever simple? Why couldn’t Markús just have come up from the basement with his arms full of old pornographic pictures? She aimed her flashlight at him.
“Show me what you were looking for,” she said, her anxiety heightened by the nervous expression on his face. “Surely it can’t be worse than this.”
Markús was silent for a few moments. Then he cleared his throat and shone his light into a nook right next to them. “It was this,” he said, not letting his eyes follow the flashlight’s beam. “I can explain everything,” he added nervously, looking at his feet.
“Oh, Jesus!” cried Thóra, as her flashlight clattered to the floor.
Copyright © 2010 by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
English translation copyright © 2010 by Philip Roughton